Monday, February 11, 2013

ABCD: The Politics and Plot of a Prabhudeva Movie

(Ace Dancer Prabhudeva in ABCD poster)

On the other day when I went to the park with my son to play cricket I saw group of boys practicing dance. They looked at me curiously as they found in me a grown up man who was destined to bowl and field and never to bat. I looked at them with equal curiosity as I found them quite interesting. In their malnourished bodies I could see the reservoirs of energy; they danced their way away with all sincerity and devotion. They whirled, made hand stands, head stands, rotations, somersaults, cartwheels, breaks and jerks, and moon walking on the uneven grass land of the park. The first thing that came to my mind was to give them a five hundred rupees note and ask them to go and watch ‘ABCD’ (Any Body Can Dance), directed and choreographed by Remo Desouza with Prabhudeva in the lead role. But I restrained. Soon there was a strange wave of empathy between those lower middle class boys and myself; they were picking up the balls struck by my son for his fours and sixes and throwing back to me. After some time they came to me and asked whether I was from the Press. I gave them an affirmative answer. They claimed that they had seen me photographing their dance in some function. I did not deny as I did not want their enthusiasm to die out. I asked them why they were practicing so vigorously. They said they had a program coming on the Valentine’s Day. I wished them all best and went back to bowling to the impatient batsman standing at the other end of the ground in form of my son.

Looking at those boys I realized that anybody could dance. You don’t need polished floors, huge mirrors and Boss stereo sound systems to shake your legs. If you have a will there is a dance floor out there. These boys were making their companions’ faces as mirrors to reflect the agility of their moves. They were teaching each other: each one teach one. In ABCD, Prabhudeva, who acts as the dance master Vishnu says, ‘Anything that dances is alive. A living thing is bound to dance.’ For him dance is the ultimate meditation to redeem oneself. Dance is a way to life; dance is a way to transcend class, caste and religion. Dance is the road to freedom. Dance is a challenge and dance is an opportunity. Yes, Dance has always been a way of expressing one’s inner feelings. Before dance became a high class affair though aerobics and salsas and waltz and tarantullas, dance was a medium to express one’s way of life, rebellion. Like music, dance too redeemed people from their bleakest of moments. Dance was always an expression of the black people who had experienced slavery. They danced to freedom as they sang to redemption. Mohammad Ali, the boxer is claimed to have said that he was the originator of rap music as he ranted against his opponents when he challenged them both within and without the ring. And he danced while he boxed. Dance was a way to revolution.

(A still from ABCD)

Black People say the white men cannot dance. For the anti-colonial and anti-Imperialist people dancing was a way of expressing rebellion in the street. In 1980s break dance became a fad amongst the black youth in the United States. Michael Jackson gave it much needed sophistication in his moon walking techniques. Charlie Chaplin had perfected the art of dancing as a celebration of life in his movies. If you carefully watch the famous song and dance sequence in Modern Times one could see how Chaplin had introduced the primary movements of moon walking in that particular scene. Michael Jackson took off from there to give it an ethereal feeling. When it happened along with his feminine shrieking the moves became a rage. Martial arts and street dancing were two things that defined the other man’s rebellion all over the world along with respective music during the post-Lennon period. While Bruce Lee ruled the martial arts world (interestingly, most of the black people learnt martial arts during that period and the trend continues even today), Michael Jackson ruled the music world. From Michael Jackson when the music and dance comes to the generation of Tupac Shakur and Biggie and then to rappers like Snoop Dog and Ice Cube, dance has also reached the streets. Then it became a world fever.

ABCD is a formula picture but with a difference. The difference lies in where when the film states that dance is not only a way of life but also a way to reconcile with many things that could be detrimental to the growth of life if not taken in the right spirit and unified with the spirit of dance. Jehangir Khan (Kay Kay Menon) and Vishnu grew up in streets dancing. Khan sets up JDC (Jehangir Dance Company). He is power hungry but Vishnu, the chief instructor of the school is stands for ethics. When Khan gets JDC team selected for the national dance competition, which is a televised program and event, Vishnu feels dejected. Khan replaces Vishnu with a white dancer. Vishnu is heartbroken and he wants to leave for his native, Chennai. But his friend Gopi, a local dance master (played effectively by the massive dance choreographer, Ganesh Acharya), insists that Vishnu should stay back and follow his dreams, which is dancing. Vishnu gets the local Tapori boys and girls for his class. Their internal rivalries are cleared and a new bonding is created by the presence of their Guru, Vishnu and his dance. They are all set for the competition. The usual corporate games happen. Families involve and dissuade the kids from dancing. Drug addicts are saved through dance. Love and passion for dance are tested. Death underlines love and it intensifies the feelings. Finally Vishnu’s company reaches the final. To the dismay of Vishnu and his students, they see Khan’s plotting succeeds in weaning away a key dancer from their troupe. Now with no new steps and ten minutes in hand, Vishnu asks the students to dance that dance anybody could dance. They do it and they become the winners. The story is that.

(Prabhudeva, Saroj Khan, Remo D'Souza and Ganesh Acharya in ABCD credit song)

The film ABCD works in two modes: the middle class’ present day aspirations to make it big in any field and the nostalgia of the film industry itself. Today thanks to so many television channels and reality programs, a lot of Indian middle and lower middle class people get a chance to showcase their talents. From super dancers to singers to brats get a chance to express their talents through these programs. One needs rigorous practice and devotion to become a star; these programs underline. The middle class passion to become great or the lower middle class’ desire to reach the upper layer finds fruition in these devoted acts. It has changed India in a big way, one should say. It would be interesting to see the plot of Bunty our Bubbli in this context. Bunty wants to make it big through inventions and Bubbly wants to make it big in fashion industry. Both of them fail so they become con-people. But times have changed. Today, if you have real ability and determination to work hard you can reach there, at least for one season. ABCD is all about that; the small town kids’ aspiration to make it big. But the film has a better philosophy to offer. If you have a dream to chase and devotion to put yourself completely into it, you can make it. But you need to follow the truth as embodied in a person or an ideal.

The aspect of nostalgia is very important in ABCD. In India, most of the actors where dancing to the traditional steps composed by traditional masters. There used to be a period when most of the choreography was done by masters who belonged to the Uday Shankar school. The sets were grand and steps were classical. Then came the era of Bhagwan Dada, who made languorous body movement into graceful dance movement. Inspired by south Indian dance masters there occurred a time during Jitendra’s younger days that brought him the name Jumping Jack. Then it was the time of Mithun Chakravorty and Rishi Kapoor, both danced to Disco and Rock and Roll respectively. Kamal Haasan worked between the desi, margi and contemporary styles but still was not up to the new age dance till late 1980s. It was Javed Jaffrey who brought the real break dance in the Indian screen but his was an arrival well before in time so he could not click. But his moves were picked up by many. Most of the mainstream heroes started dancing to Jaffrey style. Chiranjeevi was one dancing actor who popularized the break dance movements. All these prepared the ground for Prabhudeva’s arrival.

(The Prabhudeva Speak- Dance means Discipline, A means Attitude- from ABCD)

Prabbudeva was assisting his choreographer father Sundaram master and in late 1980s he was getting ready to break free from his father’s style. He got chances to work with actors like Rajnikant (Annamalai- song Annamalai Annamali) and it was his movie Kadalan (Super hit Muqabala- in Hindi) that heralded the arrival of Prabhudeva as a dancing wonder. He changed the grammar of Indian choreography because his moves were difficult and innovative. The trend of choreographing according to the physical traits of the actor/actress was toppled considerably by Prabhudeva’s dancing movements that needed tremendous training and a real passion for dance. Dance took Prabhudeva, a shy, bearded, humble, lean, thin, dark, tall and above all non-English/Hindi speaking actor/dancer to the national scene. Most of the actors and choreographer had to redefine their grammars with the arrival of Prabhudeva. Saroj Khan was the peerless queen of choreography in 1980s and 1990s, designing dances for the actresses like Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit. With Prabhudeva’s arrival, heroes in mainstream Bollywood also had to dance differently. If you look at the career graph of Govinda, Akshay Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan, Amir Khan and Salman Khan, one could see the first three actors worked well on their dance and the latter two preferred choreographers according to their body style. The generation that followed with Hritik Roshan in the lead are well versed dancers thanks to the number of dance schools came up in the industry with Shiamak Dawar in the lead as the dance master. One could say that it was clearly a Prabhudeva effect on the Indian film industry.

The nostalgia aspect of ABCD happens through the evocation of this collective memory. Prabhudeva after a gap of a decade re-emerged as a director of hit films like Rowdy Rathore. While he abstained himself from acting for sometime or reduced his presence into cameo appearances or occasional public presence as a judge to a few reality dance programs, people wanted more and more from this dancing sensation as he spoke very little or his eloquence of silence was broken by broken English or broken Hindi. To have Prabhudeva in a full length role not as a Hero who fights but as someone who dances or teaches dance, must have been a collective desire of the Indian audience and Remo Desouza has not gone wrong while casting Prabhudeva in the lead role for ABCD. Prabhudeva who is in his mid 30s now is still young, with the same body as he had when he debuted and has a casual dressing sense, which is cool and rebellious for the young audience, but has a class of his own that he has gained over a period of time in his film career as a choreographer, actor and director. It shows that the very casting of Prabhudeva, with his black underdog’s body, conveys the message that Any Body Can Dance. If Prabhudeva could make it then anybody could, the film says and it is believable. Perhaps, we conveniently forget the fact that Prabhudeva is a classically trained dancer and had a long apprenticeship under his choreographer father. Or perhaps, it is the time that we relish the presence of all those sons of artists who had never a chance to become celebrities in their life time. I would cite Veeru Devgun (Fight master and father of Ajay Devgun), Shetty Ganja (fighter and father of Rohit Shetty), and Sundaram master (choreographer and father of Prabhudeva). We should not forget R.K.Shekhar who was an accomplished arranger of music and sired A.R.Rahman.

 (A thrilling dance scene from ABCD)

The film starts with the falling out of Jehangir and Vishnu. Vishnu finds his protégés as he watches the police chasing a few local youths who are dancers and trouble shooters. He sees them again at the Ganapati Visarjan festival in one of the streets of Mumbai. There are two rival groups and they end up in fighting. The whole efforts to bring them into the dance floor by Vishnu vaguely remind one of the Billie Jean video of Michel Jackson. The two rival groups come together to dance and prove their worth and Vishnu is the peace maker through the art of dance. He is more spiritual in his approach. He admonishes his students when they get into a bar dance competition. According to Vishnu arrogance out of any art form shows the lack of understanding of the performer therefore he is ill equipped to do the performance. He even decides to leave the city dejected. Now the students want him back. So they get him back through another dance.

There are two strong sub texts working along the movie, which I would cite as two problems that the understanding of the movie would eventually raise. First of all, the larger backdrop of the movie is Hindu; when we read the Ganesh festival, it shows an aggressive Hindu nature. Though the Christian film director tries to pitch in an element of Christianity through the large sculpture of a pious angel at the terrace of the chawl where Gopi lives and setting most of the shots opening with the looming presence of this angel, one cannot avoid seeing the larger Hindu element in it. And to underline this, the last song where Vishnu asks his team to perform the way that anybody would perform in a given situation, the theme automatically becomes a Ganesh festival. The students recreate the ambience of Ganesh festival in their winning dance sequence. This is a problematic when we read Vishnu as the protagonist’s name. While most of the black movies that treated black identity as the issue that demanded transcendence through dance, here the medium of transcendence while remaining the lower middle class, it is expected to seek the deliverance of it through Hinduism. It is a task that the film director should have taken into account and handled in a different way by introducing an absolutely new context of liberation, of the class through dance. May be, a bit more considerate reading would make us feel that as it is India we cannot avoid the meta narrative of Hinduism when we discuss class or an aspiration for classlessness.

(De Dancing for his life- Dharmesh Yelande, the new comer in his haunting performance)

The other sub-text that creates another problematic is this; the traitors are all shown or suspected as people belonging to the Muslim community. Bollywood has always created the Muslim as the other even before the identity of the global terrorist has been fixed as Muslim by certain interest groups. But in ABCD, Vishnu is betrayed by Jehangir Khan (it is not a Fernandes or Tyrewallah or Jain or Dawar or Kapoor). Then again the first spanner is thrown at the spoke of the well oiled dancing engine of Vishnu’s school is by Qureshi (a person who runs a poultry farm and mutton business) and he happened to be the Muslim Dancer ‘D’s father. But the young generation Muslim D stands upto the challenge and he shows his allegiance to Vishnu and his dancing mates by leaving his own home. But when the question of betrayal comes it is D who is under the shadow of suspicion. Even when JDC buys out Vishnu’s dancers the first finger is pointed at D. Is it because he is a Muslim? The question remains. The film ABCD despite these pitfalls and formulaic approach has a lot of positive energies to offer. It also works towards the eradication of tobacco and drug abuse. I wish the film was in 2D than 3D. 

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